Jon Moffitt: Hi, this is Jon. Today we’re going to have a conversation that many of you are going to agree with. There is something wrong with the modern Christian movement, or what we would say is the evangelical movement; something feels off. If you feel this way, this conversation might be helpful for you.
We will talk about a lot of the dangerous movements that happen within the broader evangelical church. Where did it come from? Is there a solution? Do we dump the whole thing or is there another option? What we would point you to is a reformed confessional option.
In the members’ podcast, we look back to the historic teachings of Christianity that have been handed down to us to explain where rest and hope can be found. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Justin Perdue: Today we are going to discuss the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum and that we are all products of the culture in which we live in. We’re all influenced by things that we’re not aware of. The point of the conversation today is to hopefully be of help to the broader evangelical movement out there, or even to the Calvinistic evangelical as well, in identifying some of the things that have produced the evangelical culture in which we live in, and in which many of us have been raised and have cut our teeth spiritually and theologically speaking.
The illustration we’d like to use a lot of times is the one of fish and water: the fish lives in the water, swims in the water, and honestly is not really aware of the water itself. What we want to do is help the fish see and understand the water in which it’s swimming. Our hope is to give a little bit of backfill in terms of how we even got here, and what is it that has produced evangelicalism with respect to history.
We also want to identify some of the big things that are a part of the evangelical culture that may or may not be biblical as they are just cultural. A lot of times we assume these things are in the Bible because we have never known anything other than them.
We want to take a serious look at some of those things and come alongside the evangelical in a kind way to say to them, as we often do, that if they are seeing and feeling these things, they’re experiencing this tension, they’re disenchanted, struggling, and frustrated, that they are not crazy and they are not alone. For me, the Lord primed the pump for years to bring me to the place where I am in now.
I’m mindful of a number of podcasts, writings, and other media that’s out there that is basically just an out and out rebellion against the evangelical culture because they’ve been so burned by it. That’s not what we want to do. We want to come alongside and be a little bit more helpful, maybe more charitable, and not burn the whole thing down. Rather, we want to identify the things that aren’t as biblical and that are more culturally situated.
That’s the best way I know to frame the conversation. Let’s try to help some people out there.
Jon Moffitt: There have been quite a few people who have identified this problem. For a person who has been brilliant at this and really did a fine job, unfortunately he just threw the whole thing out. Rob Bell is brilliant mind, a brilliant communicator, and he was able to pull out all the strings meticulously. Before you know it, all of evangelicalism was unraveled and he pulled a large following with him. Now I’m not sure what he believes in – if he’s a deist or what. We too want to pull out all these strings and help you dismantle and identify where you can say where something isn’t right.
There are unfortunately people who are over it and they walk away. I have friends who are in these circumstances where they just walked away from evangelicalism; they walked away from Christianity. I have a lot of college students whom I used to help think through as I was ministering to them and they’ve done the same. Then you have those who remain but they stay frustrated. They’re constantly trying to figure out why they feel that way. They know they can’t walk away from Christ because they love Christ. At the same time, how do they identify what’s going on? As Justin said, they don’t have a category to place it in because no one has pulled them out to show them the context.
One of the big keys in this is becoming self-aware and identifying what’s going on in your current context. This was big for me when I first started to evaluate my own Christian life. The history behind evangelicalism has turned the entire Christian world in on itself; it has turned it into where everything is about the self-made Christian. They’ll give you a thousand different things to be a better dad, to be a better mom, to be a better whatever. Everything becomes about self-improvement. Everything becomes self-focused: from books to church services to music, everything is about how I can become better. The Me Song Movement back in the eighties and nineties is just exhausting to think about – there were so many songs about what I’m going to do or it’s all about me and my worship for God. The foundation of the evangelical movement has been this me-centered, me-focused movement.
Jimmy Buehler: This is where you really have to ask the question. When you come to this place and you’ve felt these things for a while where you’ve begun to feel, in a sense, lost in the crowd, you start asking the question, “Is there another way?” But you’re also fearful to ask that question because it’s like you are bucking against the status quo. People look at you funny when they hear you ask questions like, “Is there another way that the Christian life is experienced?”
I remember my own journey of coming out of evangelicalism and looking at the Christian life from a more historically reformed mindset. The things that I was saying and the ways that I began to think about piety, holiness, church, preaching, sacraments, and the like had people looking at me like I was nuts. One of the questions I always got is, “Are you going to become Catholic?” Or something like that.
Justin, you’ve said this before. The way that we are talking now is actually very old. It’s very historic. So it’s very easy to feel that way – to feel like there’s something’s wrong with me.
Justin Perdue: It’s a pop tart reality. We talk in such a way that it’s so old, it sounds new. I’m referring to that old school commercial where they say it’s so hot that they’re cool, so cool that they’re hot.
I think it matters to have the conversation about history and about what produced evangelicalism. I mean it to be humbly put forth. I’m not trying to act like the three of us have it all figured out, but I would wager that the vast majority of evangelicals have no real idea of how we got here in terms of what is it that produced the evangelical church in America, historically speaking. More specifically, we are thinking about the history of interpretation, the rule of faith, and the theological ebbs and flows and movements that have led us to this place.
Without going way down the road with some of this, we can’t talk about evangelicalism, which is a uniquely and American thing, without using two words and I’ll try to briefly define them. The first one is positivism, which we talk about all the time here. It is a hyper-focus on the Christian and the interior of the Christian life. It’s very subjective; it’s all about you, your affections for God, your disciplines, your performance, your obedience, et cetera. There’s that hyper-focus on the individual and on the believer. The other thing that has really contributed to where we are is something we would call revivalism, and we have to state that the evangelical church in America is pietistic and revivalistic at heart.
In terms of revivalism, it’s about several things: it’s about moral transformation, personal improvement, and change. It is also about this conversion moment: we need people to make decisions for Christ. Those two theological movements, pietism and revivalism, form and shape the American church – broadly speaking.
This has all kinds of fallout for where we find ourselves today. I will start with this because I think it matters… and I’m speaking to the broad evangelical population out there. I think that most Christians in America assume that the Sunday morning gathering is really for the purpose of bringing non-Christians in. It’s like the purpose is essentially to have a stationary Billy Graham crusade: “Let’s make it as attractive as we can to the non-Christian and see as many people make decisions for Christ every Sunday as possible.” The thought that we would herald the gospel primarily to the saints, with the understanding that the non-Christian would be present, is absolutely foreign to most people. Most people would think that’s bananas. They would wonder why they need to do it that way. I think that demonstrates a number of things that we’ve misunderstood about what the focus of the church and what the focus of the Sunday morning gathering is; it’s not so much for the equipping of the saints and the sustaining work of God through word and sacrament, and through which he imparts faith as well. It’s aimed to bring people in and make them think about how they can live better lives now in Christ – they have to move on to that reality.
Jon Moffitt: When you look at the early church in Acts, then you read the New Testament epistles and even look at church history, the church services primarily the saints – it’s a family gathering, and it’s for the sake of building one another up. You then get influenced by revivalism and the tent meeting movement, and the church service became the evangelistic program. So revivalism and tent meetings became so famous and popular because there was no entertainment in the culture. You didn’t have TV, radio was on the movement, but revivalism threw up this tent where you can go hear a very dynamic, passionate person preach. That influenced preachers in a way where they wanted to have that in their own church services. Church services became revivalistic and all of a sudden, instead of teaching and training and shepherding people, it became about how many conversions they can get. It became all about transformation and getting people to make a decision.
This is still true today. You look at these large evangelical churches, not all of them, but by and large a lot of them are giving away TVs, becoming all about the music and the feel, and making sure there’s a proper children’s ministry because they want to draw in the unbeliever. The believer who’s in that context is so anemic and is so weak that they, spend their whole lives thinking it is normal to live in a very shallow… when I mean shallow, I mean the sermons and the fellowship are because if you start talking about deep struggles, that’s going to scare people away.
Justin Perdue: Basically, it has become all about having a heck of a time in Jesus name on Sunday morning. It has become all about the energy and how it needs to be Epic every week. Every Sunday has got to be better than the Sunday before. It’s a treadmill. I could say a lot.
Jimmy Buehler: To stay within this but shift lanes a little bit, if you were to ask a modern evangelical the ways that a Christian grows in their faith, most likely the different barometers and the different things that they would say would be their personal devotion time, their prayer closet, and by going to the church service. Those are the primary ways that it goes, right? It has to be on a high energy. Also, they say that the way you really know if you are growing as a Christian is you ask yourself this question: how do I feel about Jesus? What is my overall disposition and feelings about Christ? That’s not to say that there is no room for feelings – so don’t hear us say that what we’re pushing is Christian stoicism – that’s not at all what we’re saying. What we have been trying to say is that there has been this massive individualization of the Christian life – that everything within the Christian life needs to be about the individual and how they are pursuing their own holiness apart from the local body.
Now we begin to shift a little bit and ask what is the better way. What is the antidote to the questions and the sickness that people feel? So I don’t know if you guys want to talk about that a little bit.
Justin Perdue: I think you’ve identified something that’s important, Jimmy. I made a wager earlier about the fact that most evangelicals don’t know where it came from. I would also wager that most evangelicals assume that the real Christian life happens when we’re alone versus when we’re gathered – in the context of the gathered church, with the ministry of the word and the ministry of the sacraments, which is the historical and reformed understanding.
Jimmy, you have said this before, and we have talked about this on Theocast before, that the new sacraments of the evangelical movement are spiritual disciplines: quiet times, prayer closet, devotional time, and the worship experience that needs to be really hyped up. It’s all about how we feel – we evaluate everything based upon how we feel. My quiet time becomes only useful to me if I felt really good about what I read in the Scripture or if it moved me in a certain way. My worship experience is only good or meaningful if I felt a certain way. It’s almost like we’re chasing these emotional highs in order to assess our lives spiritually.
Like you said, Jimmy, we’re not saying that emotions are bad. They’re good, but we’re acknowledging the fact that they vacillate and they ebb and flow like crazy. I am not the first to make this illustration. I’ve heard better preachers than me say these kinds of things. You go to an evangelical service and it’s almost like it’s a concert or a show: everything looks perfect, the music is banging, there are a lot of visual presentation, and the countdown happens and somebody grabs the mic with some grandiose gesture and says, “Hey, good morning! How are you all feeling?” Okay, what am I supposed to do with that? Because honestly, I got into a fight with my wife in the car on the way over, we spilled our coffee going through, and our kids are an absolute disaster. How do I feel? Pretty lousy, actually. What do you have for me? That’s a common experience for so many people in the evangelical church. It promotes dishonesty. I almost feel like I’ve got to put on the face and the facade and construct that thing because we’re all supposed to be hyped up for Jesus.
But what if we’re not? Maybe we come in here struggling today. Do I fake it until I make it? Because if this is what the Christian life is supposed to be, we conclude either one of two things: if the Christian life is all about hype and experience, and I’m geeked up for Jesus and I’m doing swell, then one, either this is all just a farce and it’s not legit, or two, it is legit but it just didn’t work for me. So, I’m done – this is where a lot of people end up.
Jon Moffitt: In our church context, the first time they come to a women or men’s Bible study and they’re from the broader evangelical context where it’s all about the presentation… I remember the first time I heard the song Stained Glass Masquerade by Casting Crowns with the whole happy plastic people – that’s how people feel. They have to step out of their car, put on the fake plastic Christianity where it’s all squeaky and polyester, then you get back in the car and it all comes off. Their first experience of a raw community is one where they come in and it’s all about being honest, it’s not an airing of dirty laundry, and they are safe here to admit that they do not have it all together, that they do not have the power to accomplish this Christian life on their own. Then they see grown men who are strong and firm; there are very strong personalities clinging tightly to Jesus Christ, and it’s an experience that just transforms them.
This is where I would add to what Justin and Jimmy are saying. Within the evangelical world, there’s this progression. You get drawn in through the light show: my life is not what it should be but Christianity can make me happy. Then you come in and now you’re given next steps to follow. That’s how you’re trained to interact with not only the church service but also your Bible. We would love for and encourage everyone here to indulge in God’s word as much as you’re capable of and as much as you want, but the danger is – and I know I’m going to get myself in trouble for saying this – the danger is you actually cause more problems indulging the word of God inappropriately than you would if you knew how to read it appropriately. Because you read your Bible as if it’s the next step, as if it’s your handbook for life, and it is an evangelical fallacy to think that the Bible was designed for you to try and determine what it is that you are going to do next as a Christian.
Jimmy Buehler: The awkward elephant in the room is evangelicalism is perfectly designed to run like a business that needs to grow. So often what happens within these contexts is that decisions are made for Christ. We need to on-ramp them into a greater life within the church. Typically what that means is greater volunteerism within the life of the organization. So when we have a service that has 900 people coming through the doors, we need bodies of people to make sure that this machine moves.
I’m sure there are people thinking that I’m really jaded, but one of the things that is often lacking within the evangelical culture is this mindset of how maybe being this large isn’t sustainable. Let’s get these 40 people healthy so let’s send them out and plant a church. Often that mindset does not go because they have to keep the machine moving, they have to keep the mothership afloat. Often what’s used as a tactic is – and you guys have talked about this a lot – the fear-based and legal preaching that you have to live, think, feel, and do life this way, otherwise, you’re going to make a wreck of yourself, abandon the faith, and walk away. That just exhausts people. It crushes and exhausts people.
Justin Perdue: I want to respond to a couple of things. Jon, you were talking about the danger that comes from reading your Bible by yourself, misunderstanding it, and going places with it that you should not go. This is why you need pastors. The Lord Jesus has given pastors and teachers to the church for a reason. That doesn’t mean that you can’t profit from reading your Bible by yourself – it just means that you need to be doing that in the context of a healthy local church, where you’re getting good teaching so that you are being taught how to understand your Bible.
Secondly, this is why it matters that we do theology corporately, not individually. This is part of being a confessional Christian as we look back through history and understand that the same Holy Spirit has been at work in the church for 2000 years. So we want to stand on the shoulders of saints who have come before us and have believed these central doctrinal truth claims about Scripture. We’re going to believe these things and do theology corporately, not just off by ourselves and take the Bible to mean whatever we think it means, that the piece that you mentioned, Jimmy, about how the evangelical church is a machine or a business that needs to grow. It’s almost viewed that way.
I think evangelicalism too, because of the revivalistic pieces, is inherently pragmatic. It is results-driven and it is results-oriented. In the Second Great Awakening, which happened in the middle of the 1800s, something called the new measures developed where we are going to do whatever we need to do in order to see the results produced that we want to see. We need to see people make decisions for Christ, we want to see lives transformed and changed, and so now we’re going to engineer the methods and the measures to produce those results. And because the results are good, it justifies the means through which we would achieve them.
I think that’s a backwards way of thinking. Whereas we would say is the Scripture is very clear that the church has grown and the Christian life is lived and sustained by the preaching of the word of Christ, as well as by the right administration of the sacraments of the Lord’s Table and baptism in the context of the gathered church.
That’s how we want to move forward in not only seeing people come to Christ, but how we want to see them grow in the faith. What ends up happening is a lot of damage that result when we try to tweak the measures and the means in order to achieve the result; we try to reverse engineer it. A lot of the damage and the fallout of that is what we see in the evangelical world broadly.
Jon Moffitt: I would even say that this is how we evaluate a successful church where successful churches are the ones that are big and growing. The church planner who had 400 on his first service, and then by the next year he had a thousand, the belief is that this guy has got it on – and people are attracted to that success. We read reviews on Amazon because we want something that’s successful. We are attracted to big, better, and we want something that has movement to it. We all have been a part of this. We all want to be on the ground floor where something’s moving. It’s pragmatism on steroids: we’re going to do what works.
What is sad is that the Bible tells you what works as well as the measures of success, yet they are looking nothing like what the moderate evangelical church looks like. If you think about it this way, the apostle Paul says that some people plant and some water – Paul planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the increase. The way you measure a successful church is whether they are administering what God has instituted them to administer. Are they loving and caring for one another? Are they functioning as a church should function? That’s the measure of success. But how we always measure it are budget, numbers, social media, book sales, etc. It is nauseating because you see people who are drowning.
The whole reason – and this is where we’re going to try to make a shift – is that some of you are probably feeling deep despair, and while it seems we’re jerks and we love to punch people in the nose, we are actually speaking as ones who came from this movement. Every single one of us was drowning in this movement. We all got to a point where we put our hands up and said enough is enough. We’re not doing this anymore. Every single one of us ended up going back in history asking where things went wrong. Where did it go off the rails?
During the Reformation, the Reformers were saying the same thing. They have gone off the rails and were so entrapped in legalism. The Catholic Church became a part of the culture – if you wanted to be identified by your city, county, or state, you had to be baptized in the Catholic Church. It’s how they took census so the whole system got turned on its head.
Let’s talk a little bit about how it is it that we can help people transition. We’re not just going to pull the threads and pull this thing apart, and we’re not over here saying we have the better system; we don’t have the better system. We’re hailing a system that is, I believe, biblical and based on years of history of men reshaping and reforming this from a biblical perspective.
Jimmy Buehler: We’ve mentioned the word pietism – it’s helpful to remember where that also came from. Keep in mind that there’s a difference between pietism and piety. Piety is good because we are for personal holiness; we are for repenting of our sin, placing our hope, faith, and trust in Christ and allowing his means to sanctify us in this life. We are for that. On the other hand, pietism is this hyper-focus on the self. It comes from this movement were what you had going on in the Reformation was a lot of this high-level scholastic debates and conversations happening. A lot of it wasn’t trickling down and reaching the laity. Particularly, the German Lutheran Pietist movement in Lutheran circles began forming these groups – Jakob Spener was really the head of that. The question became less about whether one is sound theologically, and more about whether one is saved. That became the question. This isn’t necessarily horrible in and of itself but as with anything, when you take it to the nth degree, it begins to shift and morph into a monster that nobody ever intended it to be. What happened within pietism is the question of whether one is saved became the air in which evangelicalism came to breathe, that it was born into.
Evangelicalism is a pietist movement. We have to keep that in mind. Once I began to realize that, and once I began to see that the “evangelical system” is built to suppress me – and I know that sounds so drastic but the evangelical system was really built to constantly drive me to myself and batter my assurance – once I began to see that, I began to think that there has to be another way. There has to be a different way because this cannot be a sustainable course of the Christian life. That was when I began to study deeper, more historical Reformed Theology. These creeds and these confessions, whether it was the Westminster Confession, the Belgium Confession, the 1689 London Baptist Confession, or even the 39 Articles of Christian Religion, once I began to look into these things I saw that there is a whole different approach to piety, the Christian life, and the church that had been rocked for me. One of the first things that I would encourage somebody is to read those historical documents.
The Reformation, dare I say, is more than the five points of Calvinism. It is more than the five solas.
Jon Moffitt: Jimmy, you dropped a really hard pill for some people to swallow. The Westminster to me, when I was growing up as a Baptist, was a step to the side of Roman Catholicism that I felt they just cleaned up a little bit. I thought they took out some of the crazies but it’s still Roman Catholicism, or they are still adhering to a document and system rather than the Bible being the sole authority for all that they do. That was just my own ignorance. Evangelicalism is mostly ignorant of Christian history. They have broad categories but they don’t really understand the distinction of what’s going on.
If you’re new to this podcast, it is very important for you to understand that we are not asking you to admit yourself to an authority that is above Scripture. The word “confess” literally means to explain. I am explaining what I believe the Bible says. Every single person has a confession. For instance, if I ask you who Jesus Christ is, what you tell me is your confession. You’re about to confess to me who you think Jesus is.
The danger is that if you don’t use history and you don’t understand Scripture, if you think you’re the only one who can rightly abide by the word of God and has the only capacity to do that, you’re going to teach heresy. Confessions are the history of what Christians have believed throughout the ages. Thankfully, during the Reformation, men decided that for the sake of education, for the sake of clarity, for the unbelieving church and to help distinct themselves from false religions and the Roman Catholic Church, they would go on and document what they believe the Bible says. So if you look at a confession, it’s not a very thick document because what they’re trying to do is present the Bible and its main points, and share that historically, this is what Christians have believed. The authority is God’s word; the explanation of what God’s word is the confession.
Justin Perdue: To confess, to explain, or even to say together what we believe – that’s what we’re pointing people to. I think a big issue in evangelicalism – and I’m going to paint this picture a little bit and then transition us to the confessional place where we are – one of the issues is that evangelicalism is built on what could be called a theology of glory, meaning it is about the fact that we in Christ Jesus are now going onward and upward; we’re constantly improving. It’s like ours is now a position of strength, and this manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Some of it are very practical: how to have a better marriage, how to have a better handle on your finances, etc. But then there’s also this mindset of you being a conqueror in the Lord Jesus, there’s an abuse of Philippians 4 where it says you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. There are all of those kinds of stuff that are sometimes sentimental and sometimes just flat out ridiculous on the face of it. And I think what ends up happening in that culture where we’re always improving, it’s always onward and upward, is that the people who are pretty self-aware are looking at themselves and are thinking, “I am not there. I am struggling like crazy. My life is hard. My sin is kicking my backside. On the regular, I’m not doing well spiritually. I don’t feel like my affections are where they need to be. I want to love God with all my heart, but I can’t seem to pull that off. I want to love my neighbor, but I can’t seem to pull that off either. I’m struggling.” Then we look around and we think, “Okay, if I’m struggling this way then I have to assume that other people are, too. But everybody’s acting like they’re doing great. What is going on?” You end up with so many people who are discouraged and jaded because they assess the church landscape and think, “Okay, Jesus is legit. I can’t walk away from Christ even if I wanted to, but the church has nothing for me. The Christian life just seems impossible. It seems absurd. I don’t even know what to do with any of this stuff.” I think the way that we would frame it here at Theocast, and I know we do this in our local churches, is that
Christ is our righteousness. He is our surety. He is our assurance. He’s our peace. He’s our hope. He’s all of these things. Now let’s be honest about our struggles and sins, and point one another to Christ in the word, in the sacrament, and in our corporate witness to each other. Let’s lock arms together as we trust Christ and rely upon the Spirit to sanctify us.
The way that we aim to do this at my church at CBC is we set the tone from the jump. We welcome people to service after we have a song to herd everybody into the room. We welcome people to church by acknowledging the reality: “You’ve come here today. We’re not sure how you’re feeling. We’re not sure how you’re doing. If you’re like the rest of us, you’ve probably had some good things happen this week. You probably also had some really hard stuff happen this week. And if you’re honest, your heart is an absolute mess. You’re distracted and you’re struggling as you come in this morning. We have no hope in and of ourselves: we’re weak, we’re inadequate, we’re insufficient, but we have come because Christ is our sufficiency and he has saved sinners, even such as us. Welcome to church.” Now we can actually look to Christ and have something to sing about, rejoice about, confess together, and comfort one another with. That’s the confessional perspective. It’s just a much more honest approach to the Christian life and to church. It’s more self-aware. That’s not to sound arrogant; it’s just true. We’re looking to the truths that are tested by centuries of time and we cling to those together; ultimately those truths center on Christ.
Jon Moffitt: As we get ready to transition over to our members’ podcast, I want to conclude with this and really set up the next conversation. The hard part about all of this is the now-what moment. We’ve identified this, but now what?
Hebrews 12 has been very helpful for me. The writer of Hebrews says you need to set aside any sin that’s weighing you down. Where does he point you? He says you need to look to the founder, the author and the finisher of your faith, the beginning and the end, the one who has saved you. The Christian life is about pointing you towards Christ. Unfortunately, evangelicalism is about pointing you towards you to improve yourself before Christ.
What we’re going to do is that we aren’t telling you there’s a new way. That is a massive movement within the evangelical world: “I’ve got this new discovery. I’ve got this new prayer.” I remember when the Prayer of Jabez just blew up. It was like this new way of praying. Where is that today? It’s like everything that was once big has now moved away. There has been this underlying, consistent Christian living that has been around for thousands of years. That’s where this conversation is going to go next. How does Confessional Theology lead us to rest in Christ and bring clarity where there’s a lot of confusion? In other words, we aren’t the first to battle with this. It has been a conversation that’s been going on since the time of Christ. It would be wise of us to look at history and see the conclusions that believers have made. We aren’t the first to struggle with those.
We’ll be heading over to the members’ podcast. This is where we’re going to get pretty lively because we’re very passionate about this. If you don’t know what this is, it’s just a simple way for us to one have an additional podcast. It’s a little bit more intimate.
It’s also how we fund our podcasts. It costs us a lot of money to produce and transcribe these. It also costs money for us to produce books that we’re producing. We have one on assurance that you can get on our website. There’s a free book there as well. If you want to learn more about this podcast, you can go to the members’ podcast and help support us. You can go to theocast.org.
Gentlemen, we’ll see you on the other side.